Longform

Undocumented Youth Blocked from Entering the U.S. Workforce Are Starting Their Own Businesses to Survive

Lilly Romo runs an English school blocks from the Arizona Capitol. Classes are held in a white adobe building with nothing on its façade but a sign advertising Escuela de Inglés. Its walls are thin and bare except for a series of certificates praising student achievement and a list of basic English phrases beside the academy's mission statement:

"To provide the best ESL program to all our students in order to enable them to reach their full potential and achieve their American dream."

The parking lot fills in the evening with work trucks and beaters, the fleet of the working poor.

"I am tired, but I am here," an older man declares as he enters the building, baseball cap over his eyes.

The school has three classrooms, a receptionist's office that doubles as Romo's workspace, and a small washroom. A counter in the main hallway holds graded papers and information on birth control. Lesson plans are posted at the back of each classroom, underneath a clock. Romo's curriculum is divided into five sections, starting with the basics of language and ending with advanced English.

Each room is filled with short tables, worn chairs, and white boards, all donated to the school. Four middle-aged brown men sit at their desks, book-ended by a pair of midlife madres. Open binders lie in front of the students, color-coded subsections and course materials packed inside. Even Romo, 23, a tiny woman with fair skin, long hair, and the ghosts of teenage acne on her cheeks, is cramped at her desk in the small space.

Today's lesson is dedicated to verbs, past-progressives, and gerunds. Romo leads a discussion of the difference between "was" and "were," then has the students read aloud a complicated passage about the Earth's atmosphere.

"Did you learn the 20 vocabulary words?" Romo asks her students.

"Yes," answers one of the women, with sheepish pride and a Mexican accent. "I practiced all morning!"

Romo reviews the lesson at the end of class before assigning reading questions for the students' homework.

Most of the class sticks around afterward for tutoring.

"I do everything," Romo says of her role at the school. "Sometimes, students will say, 'Teacher, I failed a test. I need you to tutor me,' and then, two minutes later, they'll say, 'Teacher, there's no toilet paper in the bathroom.' I'm a janitor and the head tutor."

She also is undocumented.

At 2 years old, Romo was brought to America from Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point) by her mother, who was on the run from an alcoholic husband. Romo wants to be a nurse but, lacking a Social Security number, can't pass a background check.

In need of work, Romo started teaching at a different language school in downtown Phoenix. She struggled initially. Students laughed at her nervousness and complained about her Spanish grammar, but she began researching English as a second language and developed her own curriculum. Once she realized her students were learning the material, Romo asked her bosses to incorporate her course strategy at their school, but they refused.

"Lilly, you think too much. You're an overachiever. Just go teach it," she remembers them saying. "If you want to follow it, go ahead."

So she did.

In summer 2009, at 21, Romo decided to quit working for someone else and became her own boss. She borrowed $5,000 from a high school friend who was deported two weeks later, rented a building, filed paperwork to register her business with the state of Arizona, and started her escuela.

Romo came close to losing her business in the heat of Arizona Senate Bill 1070, when many of her students quit rather than attend classes near the state Capitol for fear of running into the wave of police officers patrolling the area. Today, the school survives to teach 60 students a day, most of whom come to class right after work, dirty, hungry, and tired.

She guesses that some of her students have papers and some don't, but Romo doesn't ask about their statuses. She only wants to know why they're interested in attending her school.

"Some have children they want to help with their homework; others want a better job or a promotion," she says. "They'll say, 'I hate it when the cop stops me, and I have no idea what he's saying. I don't understand my doctor.'"

Others tell her another reason, one she laughs about: "'I want to talk to people at the club.' Mostly, young guys say that."

The school is Romo's sole source of income, and she supports her mother and younger brother, a U.S. citizen and high school football player, with her profits.

Romo charges each student $160 for enrollment, which includes books. Then she charges full-time students $95 for tuition each month, $85 for part-time students, and $65 for anyone who wants to attend once a week.

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Gregory Pratt
Contact: Gregory Pratt